Anger Trumping Hope in Dean's Message

Times Staff Writer

Howard Dean was finishing another firebrand speech in which he lambasted President Bush, this time for his education reforms.

About 50 teachers and parents packed into a middle school library applauded loudly as the former Vermont governor attacked the No Child Left Behind Act as "fraudulent education policy" and accused the president of trying to dismantle public schools.

Then, as he always does, the Democratic presidential candidate shifted gears.

"We need to take this country back by being positive," he said, scanning the room as he spoke. "I want to have hope again, I want to have optimism."

A regular staple of his stump speech, Dean's promise to change America for the better has gotten little notice as his campaign has gathered steam around his willingness to confront Bush and Dean's opposition to the war in Iraq.

In many ways, his outspokenness has become his trademark. Buttons worn by supporters at nearly every event sum up the sentiment: "Give 'em hell, Howard."

"He comes across as blunt and to the point, and reflects the anger that is out there among Democrats about the economy and the war," said J. Mark Wrighton, an assistant professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

Increasingly, his Democratic rivals and party leaders have challenged that approach, saying that to defeat Bush next year, the party's nominee must offer more than attacks. "We can't just be the party of anger," North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said in a debate in Iowa on Monday.

Dean insists that since the beginning of his candidacy, he has paired his criticism of Bush with an uplifting message.

"They still don't understand," he said of his critics in a recent interview. "What we're really tapping into is the desire for hope again."

But the fact that Dean is better known for his pugilistic side speaks to the challenge of balancing anger and hopefulness in a political campaign -- especially for a candidate who is naturally pugnacious. On the campaign trail, Dean's passion often sounds a lot like ire. He can often be found with his shirt-sleeves rolled up, pumping his fists into the air as his voice rises to a shout. In debates with his opponents, the former governor often seems defensive and annoyed.

"It's difficult because his aggressive style is not something he can walk away from," said Wayne Fields, an expert on political argument at Washington University in St. Louis. "He has to find a way of having it both ways, to let people see that his passion is generated by wrongheaded policies, and also assure them that he is a statesman."

Finding the right mix could help silence criticism that Dean needs to do more to lay out a positive agenda.

"What has galvanized his campaign up to this point has been, 'I'm the guy who will stand up to George Bush,' " said Al From, founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and an advisor to Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, another presidential contender. "Now he's got to say what he's going to do for the country."

Dean says that's exactly what he's been doing.

"We're going to have a little fun at the president's expense tonight, but we're also going to say what we would do better," he told voters at a town hall meeting in Hampton, N.H., recently. "Because we're not going to beat President Bush by simply telling everybody how dreadful he is."

But he spends a lot of time doing just that.

Over and over, Dean accuses Bush of being petulant and misguided, often sounding a defiant tone.

"This is the next American revolution, where we cast out the money-changers from the temple, where we tell the Pharisees to go back to where they came from," a red-faced Dean told several hundred cheering twentysomethings assembled at a bar in Washington, D.C., recently for a fund-raiser.

Many voters say that message resonates, and appeals to them.

"I think there are a lot of people who are pretty angry with what is going on with the Republicans right now," said Jerome Kramer, a 28-year-old middle school teacher who heard Dean speak last week in Salem, N.H. "I think it's a good tactic. There's a lot of frustration out there."

Dean's remaining challenge is to persuade undecided voters that he is also offering a substantial message of hope, a vital ingredient when running for the country's highest office, political analysts said.

"We want candidates to go after the scoundrels, but we also want to believe they can transcend all that and operate on a higher sphere," Fields said.

One candidate who effectively combined those elements was Bill Clinton, who ran against Bush's father in 1992 in a campaign that wrapped his critique of the president in an optimistic sheen.

San Francisco State University professor Joseph Tuman said that Dean has to move his image from that of "a George McGovern angry man to a Bill Clinton thinking man."

"I think if he stays with his old rhetoric, he risks the perception that he is not electable," said Tuman, who studies political communication. "His bluntness, while attractive to people who feel disempowered, frankly is a little unattractive to people who feel he lacks some genteel quality."

Dean, however, does not have the empathetic manner that helped Clinton relate his message of hope to his audience. Instead, Dean has a reserve born of his New England home, a detachment that often can make him seem indifferent to his most fervent supporters.

After the town hall meeting in Hampton, Dean was approached by a young man who was nearly overcome with emotion as he shook his hand.

"I felt like a traitor in my own country for being against the war," he told Dean. "You've made me feel proud to be Democrat again."

"Thanks," the candidate said distractedly. "Tell your friends and vote."

Dean tries to connect with voters on more pragmatic terms, drawing from his experience as a family physician in Burlington, Vt.

What others interpret as anger, he said, is merely his effort to recognize voters' frustrations with the Bush administration, as a doctor would affirm a sick person's symptoms. Only then are they willing to listen to his solutions.

"You have to acknowledge the feelings of the people who want to vote, and then you have to support them," he said in an interview. "The way you assist is to do the right prescription and the right treatment, and also to connect with the part of the person who is going to be the most positive and the most optimistic about getting better."

And so at the end of every speech, Dean casts his candidacy as a harbinger for change. He talks about renewing a sense of broad community. And he encourages individuals to believe they can make a difference in society.

"The biggest lie that people like me tell people like you at election time is, 'If you vote for me, I'll solve all your problems,' " he says. "The truth is, the power to take this country back is in your hands, not mine."

Many supporters say his message rekindles a sense of optimism they thought they had lost.

At a labor rally in Des Moines last week, Sally Troxell pushed through the crowd to shake Dean's hand.

"You give us hope, Howard!" Troxell, 56, told him.

"I think the emphasis on his anger is a distortion," she said later. Rather, she said, his promise to return power back to average citizens is reminiscent of what she felt in the 1960s. "My God, it takes me back 35 years! This could be really something."

For his advisors, that response is the ultimate proof that Dean's message is getting across.

"There have been plenty of candidates who speak out in anger and all you get from the people that they're talking to is anger," said campaign manager Joe Trippi. "The people in his audience respond with hope. That's what matters."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°